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Oklahoma County jail inmates' harvest may reap big savings for jail

Oklahoma County jail inmates went to work Friday harvesting potatoes grown through the sheriff's inmate gardens program. The project will save the jail about $35,000 in food costs this year, Sheriff John Whetsel said.
BY HANNAH COVINGTON hcovington@opubco.com Published: July 13, 2013

When Calvin Reed saw the rows of leafy, green bushes shrivel in the July heat, he knew it was time to start digging.

Reed, 45, gripped his shovel and foraged the soil for potatoes Friday, hardly stopping for a break in the shade. He enjoys the chance for an honest day's work, he said.

“I'd pick doing this to being inside any day. They have to come and tell me to take a break,” Reed said.

He woke up with the sun to catch a van that took him and nine other inmates from the Oklahoma County jail to a field sprawling with crops next to the sheriff's office substation in Midwest City.

The inmates work the field through a garden program started by Sheriff John Whetsel three years ago.

The project aims to cut down food costs at the county jail, while offering inmates the chance to learn about gardening and shave time off their sentences.

“It keeps inmates busy, teaches them a trade and helps them work with their own hands to grow things,” Whetsel said.

After a health clearance check, nonviolent offenders can apply to the garden program, Whetsel said. Most are in jail on misdemeanor charges.

For some inmates, each day spent working outside in the plant beds cuts 2.5 days off their sentence, Capt. Harry Falter said.

The project has two harvests per year, one in the spring and fall.

Other than potatoes, inmates grow onions, carrots, beets and lettuce. It all is used in the jail's kitchen.

“They work hard at it,” Falter said. “As they dig the potatoes up, they actually get to see and touch what they've done.”

Big savings

The jail provides three meals a day to about 2,500 inmates. That pushes annual food costs well over $2 million, Whetsel said.

When the land for the garden program was purchased from Tinker Air Force Base in 2004, Whetsel knew it would eventually yield big savings, he said.

The sheriff estimates the crops harvested this year will save the jail $35,000 in food expenses.

“Whatever we produce in these gardens is taken down to the jail and will be eaten by the inmates,” Whetsel said. “So far, it's been an overwhelming success.”

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